Managing Fireground Risk

My last FF-360 column, “Means to an End: Effective communication leads to action,” was the first in a series that addresses the characteristics of effective communication and the barriers that prevent it. Following columns will review areas such as frictions in communication, active listening and effective communication under stressful conditions.

I was fortunate to attend the Fire-Rescue International (FRI) 2010 Conference in Chicago in August, so I want to take a side road to tell you about two individuals who delivered potent messages that are in touch with FF-360 and the elements of crew resource management. I’ll pick up where I left off on communication in the next column.

Better SA Leads to Better Decision-Making
Richard Gasaway, retired fire chief and owner of Gasaway Consulting Group, is an experienced firefighter and chief with a passion for safety and operating effectively. He is an active speaker on helping organizations learn and grow through understanding human behavior and enhancing efficiency. At FRI 2010, he presented an informative class on situational awareness and decision-making—both important FF-360 factors for creating success on the emergency scene.

In this presentation, Gasaway began by suggesting that better fireground decision-making requires four essential components:

1. Situational awareness (SA)
2. Tacit knowledge
3. Mental modeling
4. Self-efficacy

He stressed that repetitive habits learned in training will play out on the emergency scene. Simply put: How we train is how we work; that’s reality.

Gasaway explained that the purposes of training are to improve and sustain cognitive knowledge and motor skills. Firefighters need to be mentally and physically ready. He believes this is accomplished through reality-based training, which he defines as “the repetitive rehearsal of proper performance in the context of a real-world situation.” This “real” approach to training builds mentally stored knowledge and images that lead to better decisions, and physically stored knowledge, or muscle movements, that create more correct physical responses. Gasaway suggests that the repetitive training approach creates muscle memory that kicks in without conscious thought, which is what is needed when an unexpected event occurs.

Situational Awareness
Regarding the first of his four essential components, SA, Gasaway relayed some disturbing, but factual, data from several national reporting systems that SA was a leading factor in many firefighter near-misses and casualties. He stated that the SA issues in these reports include inadequate initial and ongoing size-ups, failure to continuously evaluate risks vs. benefits, ineffective communications, and failure to recognize hazards.

As I’ve described in previous columns, SA is knowing as much as possible about what is happening in the environment around you; it’s focusing on the external (environment), not so much on the internal (yourself). It’s difficult because we have to combine our perception of what has already taken place with what is presently occurring, and what we anticipate will materialize in the future. Limited information and/or inaccurate perceptions can, and probably will, lead to a breakdown in SA. Personal fear or anxiety will accelerate this breakdown. Remember, a loss of SA is present in almost every firefighting mishap. Check the data. We must learn more about SA, how and why we lose it, and the techniques to help us maintain and recover it while operating in complex environments.

10 Best Practices
Gasaway recommended the following 10 best practices to help commanders improve situational awareness and decision-making. I’ve added brief comments to each.

  1. Prioritize incoming information: The conditions, the construction and design, the speed of the incident, and a realistic assessment of what can be done. What’s there, what do I have to work with, and what can I do now?
  2. Base strategy and tactics on the quality and quantity of current staffing: What are my resources; my firefighters? What are their capabilities and attitudes? What can I accomplish right now with these firefighters?
  3. Stay focused on the BIG picture: The emergency scene is full of people, things and events coming together at the same time. Stick to the initial objectives of ensuring crew safety, removing civilians from danger, and containing and controlling the incident.
  4. Commanders should not perform firefighting duties: Sometimes difficult, but definitely a must. Command cannot get caught up in individual tasks. Command is strategic, not tactical.
  5. Never miss communications from your most at-risk companies: Many obstacles work to block the senses of the commander. Commanders have to understand and practice good SA and task management.
  6. Command from a vehicle or a remote location but maintain a visual fix on the incident: This is an ongoing debate in the fire service. There are good points to each side. This goes back to the previous three practices. Wherever the commander decides to work, it must be a place where they remain hands-off, can see what needs to be seen, and can hear what needs to be heard.
  7. Control distractions and interruptions: Be ready to call a “time-out” or insulate the command post from any outside distractions (noise, weather, smoke, traffic, people, etc.).
  8. Use a command aide/advisor/team: As most of us know, because of limited staffing, this is easier said than done. Again, good resource management is the commander’s tool for efficiency. Learn to work with what you’ve got.
  9. Develop and maintain a strong command presence: Early command and control, including controlling emotions and effectively managing resources, is a must. An emotional commander is not in control, and the followers will know it. Events will quickly become disastrous if several opposing strategies and tactics are performed at the same time.
  10. Accelerate command knowledge and expertise: Commanders must be continuous learners and practitioners, completing realistic and repetitive training, studying near-miss reports and LODDs, reviewing case studies and completing post incident-evaluations. Most important, commanders must know their firefighters.

Recognizing the Blue Threat
Tony Kern, a recognized expert in human factors and performance, is a dynamic speaker who is passionate about organizational safety and effectiveness. Kern is the CEO of Convergent Performance, a company that specializes in optimizing human performance at every level. He is a retired USAF pilot and the author of several books that address aviation and human performance issues.

Kern’s first four books, while focusing on aviation safety, are excellent reading for firefighters because they address safety and performance issues that cross the line of any high-risk profession. In his latest book, Blue Threat: Why To Err Is Inhuman, Kern delivers his message of developing and nurturing through accountability and responsibility, which has direct application to firefighters because of their operations in high-risk and complex environments.

Kern’s keynote speech at FRI 2010 delivered a strong message for firefighters: We need to change the way we think. He believes that many high-risk professionals find it easy to fill their training hours with learning and practicing just technical skills. Kern suggests focusing more on the human element by integrating more mental skills throughout training that concentrates on situational awareness, decision-making and error management.

Kern breaks error management into blue threats—internal human elements that affect an operation—and red threats—external threats from the environment. Kern believes that blue threats can be much more dangerous, which is why organizations need to provide more training that improves individual mental ability.

Normalization of Deviance
Kern stressed that complacency factors into human error. He described how individuals can fall victim to a phenomenon called the normalization of deviance (NOD), which he explained as “a dangerous dumbing down of our risk perception.” When something happens out of the ordinary, no one challenges it, and it becomes the norm. Ignoring potential issues and eventually making them routine raises the probability of error across the entire organization. Kern conveyed that NOD typically occurs in the following four phases:

  1. An event occurs outside of good judgment or policy without negative consequence.
  2. Because nothing bad happened, the deviation is allowed to continue.
  3. Eventually, the deviation becomes not only condoned, but expected.
  4. An accident occurs outside of existing guidelines, and someone is found to be willfully negligent and held accountable.

Following are action steps that Kern suggests for early recognition and prevention of NOD:

  1. With an honest and open process, list all areas where you currently operate outside of existing policy or procedural guidance.
  2. Implement controls for violating producing conditions (VPC), or situation factors that often lead to noncompliance with technical limits, policies or procedures.
  3. Determine a way to create or restore integrity of good judgment, policy and procedures.
  4. Establish a continuous improvement process that seeks high levels of effectiveness and efficiency within existing guidelines.

Kern ended his presentation by asking, “Good, better, how: How do we get there?” He recommends that the fire service recognize the significance that human error plays in its operations, start teaching the cause of errors and how to fix them, focus more on individual personal behavior, and develop a normalization of excellence, which he discusses in his book, Blue Threat.

To learn more about Tony Kern and error management, listen to his podcast from FRI.

My Own 2 Cents
I attended several other informative classes at FRI 2010 on a range of topics from fireground tactics to servant leadership. All were great and I recommend that everyone attend FRI 2011 in Atlanta next year.

I also had the honor of presenting a class myself as well as completing a podcast with FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach. My presentation was called “Effective Training Management: Are You Ready?” and it focused on a simple method for developing and implementing a Ready Training Model that improves physical and mental abilities. An article on that presentation is in the works. The podcast was a brief overview of my FF-360 column and the importance of crew resource management in the fire service.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!